"Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” (Luke 18:1)
The Revised Common Lectionary reading for Pentecost 19, Year C (Luke 18:1-8) really doesn’t leave much room for the preacher. Keep praying. That’s what this parable of Jesus is supposed to be telling us according to the gloss which St. Luke puts on it. Keep praying. Life may suck and the bad guys may seem to be winning, but keep praying.
Actually, that’s not bad advice. But, at the risk of making this too simplistic (thereby making this post and its subsequent sermon too short—God forbid!), I’d like to suggest that we interpret “keep praying” as keep doing and keep fighting, too.
It seems a little silly of me to try to illustrate Jesus’ illustration with an illustration of my own. Fortunately, the RCL has yoked this parable with a wonderful example of persistence from the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 32:22-31). The tale of Jacob at the ford of the Jabbok[i] may not be so familiar to some folks who haven’t opened a Bible since they made their Confirmation, so it’s a good tale to retell.
Jacob is the second son of Isaac, making him the grandson of the Hebrew peoples’ patriarch, Abraham. He’s the twin brother of Esau, but he was delivered after his brother, so he’s out of the line of succession to be heir to his father’s estate and inheritor of the honor of being patriarch of the Jewish people. This doesn’t deter Jacob, however. He convinces his dim-witted brother to sell him his birthright as first-born for a bowl of soup, and, with the help of his conniving mother, he secures his father’s unwitting blessing. This gets Esau pretty pissed off as you can well imagine. He vows to kill Jacob, so Jacob high-tails it out of town to his Uncle Laban’s ranch. Years go by. Jacob marries two of his first cousins, acquires two mistresses, has a boat-load of kids, and—by ripping-off his uncle through a shifty deal that would make Donald Trump envious—manages to become a very wealthy individual.
Now, when we meet him in our Sunday lesson, he is on his way back to his ancestral land. The only hitch is that he’s learned Esau is on his way to intercept him with a formidable posse of what we can only assume are pretty rough dudes. This scares the crap out of Jacob. Nevertheless, knowing that he screwed his brother over, he decides to man up and meet Esau. He first sends a considerable bribe of livestock to his brother, doubtless in the hope that this will soften Esau’s heart. He gets his flocks and herds and hired men and family members across the Jabbok, but spends the night by himself on the far side of the stream, knowing that on the morning he’ll either get killed along with his whole clan or be forgiven.
This is where the story gets weird[ii]. Jacob can’t sleep that night. The Bible tells us that he wrestles with a mysterious man all night long. Who is this guy? Some itinerant WWE grappler looking for a work-out partner? We don’t know. He could be an angel or a personification of God. He might even be Jacob’s conscience. Whoever he is, he doesn’t get the better of Jacob. As dawn approaches, the mysterious adversary commits a wrestling foul and gives Jacob a kick in the groin which dislocates Jacob’s hip. Overlooking the pain, Jacob hangs on, telling his opponent, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
The wrestler gives in and blesses Jacob. This is a real blessing which Jacob earned—not like the one intended for Esau which he tricked his father into giving him. The problem with this blessing, however, is that it came with that nasty kick in the private parts which made Jacob limp ever after.
The story ends with the mystery man giving Jacob a new name—Israel. This literally means “God contends,” suggesting that Jacob had struggled with God. And don’t we all at times?[iii]
I like this Genesis story because I find it to be honest. Wrestling with God, your life, your conscience, or the injustice of this sinful world will—ultimately—result in you being blessed. And Jesus is calling us to a faithfulness which will last until he comes again to take us home. But this faithfulness will also come with a few kicks to the groin. We will most certainly find ourselves changed, our self-image altered, and our hearts bearing the wounds of the struggle.
Despair is easy. It is also sinful. We are enjoined to be wrestlers with the evil of this world and the brokenness of our own souls. So keep praying. It's the first step towards doing.
Thank you again for your faithfulness to my writing. Keep on keeping on. God blesses you!
[i] The Jabbok is a tributary of the Jordan River, about 25 miles north of the Dead Sea—just a little fun fact for you geography nerds.
[ii] Unless you think it’s weird already.
[iii] BTW, Esau forgave Jacob, just in case you’re interested. It turns out that Esau was a sentimental slob at heart, and when he saw his little nephews and niece he just couldn’t stay mad at their daddy. Sweet, don’t you think?